PRISON chiefs were branded a soft touch yesterday over “lenient” new rules for inmates who get drunk, fight or break out.

Lags downing illicit hooch will avoid punishment if they are “merely exuberant” under guidelines for governors.

Runaways will be let off if they say they did not mean to abscond or forgot they were due back from temporary leave.

Inmates who want sex with each other will be left alone to do so.

And jailbirds caught fighting can get off the hook by telling staff they were acting in self-defence, the manual published by HM Prison and Probation Service says.

The 87-page rulebook becomes effective next month and it comes amid growing evidence that criminal gangs are getting prison service jobs to smuggle banned items behind bars.

The system of “adjudications” sees inmates tried for a range of offences committed inside and can lead to a punishment of solitary confinement or extra days of imprisonment.

But the manual was dubbed a get-out-of-jail card after it was decided to make it available for all lags to read.

Tory MP Tim Loughton, who sits on the Commons home affairs committee, added: “The only credible explanation is that the official who came up with this nonsense is way past ‘merely exuberant’ — more like completely rat-arsed.

“As to not knowing whether you have actually done a runner from jail, you couldn’t make it up.

“These regulations read more like guidance to a red coat having to deal with a difficult guest in a holiday camp.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “We do not tolerate indiscipline in prison and punish those who break the rules.”